February 24, 1996
On February 24, 1996, Cuban MiG jets shot down two aircraft operated by the Miami-based anti-Castro Brothers to the Rescue group, killing four of those on board.
The anti-Castro’s group’s ostensible purpose had been to rescue Cuban balseros—rafters trying to escape from Cuba to the U.S. across the Florida Straits. But Brothers did more than patrol the Straits looking for needy refugees. Its aircraft often strayed into Cuban airspace, occasionally buzzing low over Havana. Its supporters claimed the Brothers were simply dropping pamphlets—like the text of the UN Declaration of Human Rights—on Havana to inform residents there of their rights.
The Cubans begged to differ. They accused Brothers to the Rescue of dropping smoke bombs into the heart of Havana as well as—more significantly—plotting to sabotage the Cienfuegos oil refinery and blow up high tension pylons to disrupt electrical power in Havana province Over the course of 20 months leading up to the shooting down of the two aircraft, in fact, the Cubans had documented 25 incidents in which Brothers aircraft had violated its airspace. When their official complaints to American officials failed to stop the flights, the Cubans threatened to—and finally did—shoot down the planes.
Though the aircraft the MiGs blew out of the air had violated Cuban air space, they were unarmed and had actually escaped into international airspace by the time the jets intercepted them. The resulting furor, especially among Cuban-American exiles in Florida, spelled an instant end to any possibility of rapprochement between Washington and Havana.